Where strong borders belong in the museum

I'm currently in Luxembourg for two days. I'd long been curious about the country that is the world's second richest and the EU's second smallest. It's a grand duchy, which is really no different to a monarchy ruled by a king or queen, except that its head of state is a grand duke.

Luxembourg itself is not on the tourist map because it's dominated by banks and is not a spectacularly charming city. But the natural landscape and the rural villages are another matter, as I discovered this morning when I decided to travel to Schengen.

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While it's only 33 km by road from the capital, Schengen is in a remote corner of the tiny country. It's where Luxembourg intersects with France and Germany, and it requires two separate regional buses to get there.

It's best known as the location of the 1985 signing of the Schengen agreement that abolished border controls between most EU countries, and a number of non-EU countries including Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.

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I enjoyed a visit to the European Museum, which is all about the vision for a Europe without borders and how that came to be realised. Reduced border controls were seen as an antidote to the nationalism that was responsible for the suffering and destruction of the two world wars of the 20th century.

Nationalism and strong borders go hand in hand, whereas international co-operation invites us to rethink the need for strong borders, which divide humanity artificially and, arguably, unnecessarily.

I was aware of this as I walked from Luxembourg into Germany and then into France, all in the space of less than half an hour. The regions I walked into - Saarland in Germany and Lorraine in France - have been passed between France and Germany, as recently as the 20th century.

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Does it really matter whether they're in France or Germany? Regional identity is one thing. It defines cultures. National identity is something else.

At the museum, the elephant in the room was the sad reality that the vision for a humanity united without borders is unravelling, with Europe's migrant crisis and the proliferation around the world of 'strong man' leaders who insist on strong borders.

The museum's focus on the lifting of border controls is intended to celebrate a remarkable achievement that is part of our present. The fear is that it will come to be viewed as a marking of the history of an idea that came and went.

The Parisian virtue of idleness

While I was working out at my Paris gym today, I was listening to a podcast of Geraldine Doogue's Saturday morning ABC radio program.

She was interviewing Irish professor Brian O'Connor on his book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay.

He was presenting idleness as a virtue, or at least a state of being that does not deserve a bad press.

The message is that many of us have to fill our lives with productivity because that's what our various insecurities demand. We have a craving for recognition and think that the only way of achieving that is to do something others will notice and give us credit for.

Was I working out in the gym because I want others to regard my body as easy on the eye?

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That was certainly part of my initial motivation a few years ago when I first started going to the gym in Sydney.

But these days - particularly here in Paris - it's just one of my various states of being. Gym time is thinking time, people watching time, podcast listening time, and body stretching time.

Perhaps it's idleness. At least I'm not a slave to anything, which is what you are if you are preoccupied with working hard to fulfill the expectations of others.

That is perhaps where there's a difference between the gym in Paris and the gym in Sydney.

In Sydney you're more likely to see people thrashing themselves in the hope of becoming something. In Paris - the home of existentialism - it's more a matter of being. As I see it, they're already proud of who they are, and some outsiders choose to regard that as arrogance.

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There's definitely a different energy, and our term 'work out' to describe what gym goers do seems strangely out of place in Paris. You're there because you're there. Of course you don't just sit around. You do pump iron and jump on the treadmill. But essentially it seems less about goal orientation.

My approach is much the same during the hours I'm not at the gym. I walk around the streets of the Marais every day with no particular purpose in mind.

Today I entered five or six small art galleries and looked at the paintings on the walls and chatted to the attendants. In one sense I was idle and just passing time. But I don't feel the time was 'wasted' because I'm at home now with a stimulating mix of vivid images in my mind. A variation on the physical high I experience after my return from the gym.

I sometimes wonder whether I should feel ashamed that I'm a few minutes walk from some of the world's most famous art museums including the Louvre and don't feel inclined to visit them. It's too much like hard work.

Eating fat and avoiding obesity

I'm back in Paris after four months in Australia. There's no doubt the Sydney winter was more comfortable than Paris' summer heatwave would have been. Especially in my tiny non-air conditioned top floor room.

Louvre Pyramid

Even the city's autumn weather is unseasonal, with daytime temperatures currently in the mid to high 20s. I'm wearing shorts, and sleeping at night under the cover of just a sheet. When I arrived here in March, I was greeted with snow and sub-zero temperatures.

That's not the only thing that's different this time around. I've decided to limit cake consumption and to suspend my half-baguette a day bread habit, in favour of one or two croissants a week and a few high-fat treats.

Croissant aux amandes

It's the result of reading a new healthy lifestyle book that my brother put me on to when I visited him six weeks ago.

The book is written by former Australian Cricket team physician Dr Peter Brukner and titled A Fat Lot of Good. It's part memoir and part commonsense interpretation of the ketogenic or low carb diet. The diet advocates maximising meat and fat and vegetables grown above the ground, and minimising grains and sugars and processed foods.

Peter Brukner A Fat Lot of Good

I know that there's no good reason for me to tamper with my choice of foods. For several years I've maintained a healthy weight and blood pressure and enjoyed a balanced diet.

When I mentioned it to my GP, he was not particularly fussed one way or the other, as long as I manage to contain my zeal and my portion sizes. He pointed to a study in The Lancet that challenges thinking that meals such as bacon and eggs for breakfast can be a healthy choice. The study suggests we should replace grains and sugars with vegetable rather than animal products.

My motivation in varying my diet is to enjoy some of the delicious high fat foods available to me here in France. My rationale is that if I'm prepared to say no to baguettes (high in carbs), I can opt for croissants (which are mostly butter and therefore high in fat).

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On my first day here, I headed for my nearby good food store Causses and brought home a duck terrine, Andouille pork sausage and vanilla butter. I've been using the vanilla butter to flavour the undeniably healthy broccoli I've steamed in the microwave.

I have long wondered why the French eat all these delicious foods while maintaining a low obesity rate (15% compared to 28% of Australians). Obviously portion control is a major factor. But I think that it's also their tendency to be less submissive to received orthodoxies.

According to Brukner, Australians have been duped in their acceptance in recent decades of the teaching that fat is bad and sugar is more or less OK.

The important thing is not to go to the other extreme and believe that fat is all good. The French don't believe fat is good or bad. They consume fat, and also sugar, in good measure.

My attitude to a healthy lifestyle is similar to my approach to religion. Our interests are best served when we take responsibility for our own choices and leave hard line preaching to the professional zealots.

UPDATE: I had an email exchange with Peter Brukner, who did not specifically mention croissants in his book. It turns out that they may be mainly butter, but they're still bread containing a significant proportion of carbs. So consuming them will be an occasional, not a daily, ritual. He also dismissed the 'crap research' contrary study that warned against animal product foods. He suggested it is discredited paid-for content from a commercial offshoot of the Lancet. He pointed me to articles and video that argue it is methodologically flawed data collected by individuals with a grain industry political agenda.



Links: Lancet | Causses

Laughing at mental illness

The Melbourne writer Isabella Fels often uses whimsy in telling of her experience of living independently with mental illness. In her article for Eureka Street this week, she writes about her unsuccessful attempt to learn to drive. 

She gently mocks what she describes as her instructor’s failure to understand her mental illness in a way that suggests it is as ham-fisted as her own efforts to master the fundamentals of driving a car. 

I feel for Isabella because she would fail to grasp a range of life skills due to her instructors’ inadequacies  – rather than her own. But the truth is that the instructors are frequently not up to the job because they do not have the preparation and resources necessary for dealing with people with special needs.

That is one of the conclusions of an author featured on yesterday’s NPR Fresh Air podcast. Her name is Alisa Roth, and she visited a range of prisons in the US to research her recently published book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness.

In framing the incarceration and treatment of the mentally ill as the ‘next civil rights issue’, she has some sympathy for the much maligned corrections officers. 

‘They’re forced to play this dual role of caretaker and enforcer but, more complicated than that, is the fact that they really don't have the training ... to, say, identify schizophrenia versus depression.’

We can point the finger at the justice system. But there’s another book to be written about how our entertainment and media industries treat mental illness. They have an important role in normalisation efforts but they can shamelessly exploit mental illness for its perceived entertainment value.

I remember the controversy generated four years ago when the Perth Show was forced to cancel one of its amusements following a public outcry.

It was a recreation of London’s Bedlam psychiatric hospital where, in the 16th century, they raised funds by allowing members of the public to pay to visit so they could ridicule and taunt the residents.

I was reminded of this last week when a Prime7 regional TV news bulletin referred to the now closed Mayday Hills mental health facility at Beechworth in north-east Victoria as a former ‘lunatic asylum’. 

The new owners of the historic property have established a holiday park with a horror amusement aspect that includes the house featured in the 1998 Australian comedy film The Castle

This is how a local tourist website promotes Mayday Hills:

‘Evening Ghost Tours will take you through the deserted buildings, where your guide will share stories and myths of patients of likes of James Kelly, uncle of the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and Ida Pender the wife of gangster Squizzy Taylor.’

An American website called The Hauntist has an entry on the ‘Beechworth Lunatic Asylum’ claiming that ‘a quick search for haunted locations throughout the world will consistently place Beechworth Lunatic Asylum at the top of the list.’

Why does this sacred ground have to be repurposed in such a bizarre and offensive manner? I had a cousin who was periodically a resident at Mayday Hills in the 1970s. Was she a ‘lunatic’ in the ‘asylum’? 

The juxtaposition of mental illness and humour is a delicate undertaking. Andrew Denton mastered it back in the 1990s. Comedians such as Hannah Gadsby have taken it to new heights more recently. And Isabella Fels does it in her writing for Eureka Street. But the new Mayday Hills and its promoters take us back to a time of darkness and inhumanity.

Retiring with imagination

It’s mid-winter in southern Australia. The weather is variable, with a comfortable 23 degree day ahead of us today in Sydney. Crops are failing in rural areas due to unusually dry conditions, even though Sydney had its rainiest June in decades.

Usually the weather affects just my spirits and how much walking I can do around the city. But on Sydney’s wildest and wettest day – Tuesday 19 June – I had three appointments that prevented me from sheltering in the comfort of my home.

At one moment I got caught in a freak horizontal rain storm. I think that was responsible for contaminated rainwater leaking into the space between my left eye and its contact lens. 

The result was a serious eye infection that had me feeling very sick one night and turning up to Emergency at the Sydney Eye Hospital in the hours before dawn. For nearly three weeks now, I’ve had the best of care and expect my health to be back normal shortly, though I won’t be wearing my contact lenses until at least the end of the month.

Until the past few days, I’ve been unable to look at screens or read printed matter. But I’ve enjoyed listening to all the podcasts of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which took place in May. It’s as if I attended the event in person, as I did the Sydney Film Festival a few weeks later.

Lying in my warm bed listening to the various conversations without the distraction of screens turned out to be an unusually pleasant and stimulating experience. But I wouldn’t say the same about trying to navigate the aisles of the supermarket not being able to read the labels on the different products. That has given me a genuine insight into how people feel marginalised by their disabilities and health conditions.

It has me thinking about a talk I’ve been invited to give to fellow retirees at the beginning of next month at the local University of the Third Age (U3A) in Cootamundra in south-west NSW. 

With the anxieties of youth and middle age behind them, so-called retirees can focus on looking after and fine-tuning the various dimensions of their lives, and possibly enjoying a more fulfilled life in their later years than earlier. I'm referring to health, finances and imagination.

It is imagination which tends to get less airplay when we decide on how to configure and manage our post-work lives. Yet it is every bit as important as our health and our finances. Without it we might stay working even though we no longer really enjoy it. Or just retire and allow boredom to set in.

The ‘grey nomads’ who tour Australia with their motor homes tend to be making the most of their imagination. For me, imagination led to my purchase of a room in Paris to use as a base for four months of the year. Which is what prompted the invitation from my Cootamundra friend to address her U3A chapter on the topic of ‘Living a Double Life’.

Wilson conviction exposes Australian bishops’ lack of contrition

In January this year, a friend took his own life while suffering psychological torture that was apparently caused by a priest sexually abusing him in Newcastle more than 40 years ago.

I think of him when I reflect on Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction this week for covering up the claim of another sexual abuse victim in that diocese around the same time.

Nothing is known of the circumstances of my friend’s sexual abuse. But I can’t help wondering that if church personnel in positions of authority had routinely acted on knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse, he might have been spared the suffering that led to his suicide.

Instead they failed to act because priority was given to preserving the good name of the church. There was a culture of arrogance that appeared to value the integrity of the institution ahead of the welfare of the people it purported to serve.

Unfortunately it appears - to me at least - that there has been a lack of fundamental change in the attitude of the Australian bishops as a body.

Yesterday a friend wrote in an open Facebook post addressed to the Australian bishops: ‘If it were appropriate for every one of Chile’s Bishops to tender their resignations to the Holy Father, why is it appropriate that a convicted criminal ... retains his position [as Archbishop of Adelaide]?’

He was referring to the Chilean bishops’ recent acceptance of their failings and their offer to resign. Pope Francis had accused them of destroying evidence of sexual crimes, putting pressure on investigators to downplay abuse accusations and showing ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from paedophile priests.

According to testimony heard by the Royal Commission, that is exactly what took place in Maitland-Newcastle Diocese under Bishop Leo Clarke. Clarke was Archbishop Wilson’s superior at the time, and Archbishop Wilson was required to dance to his tune.

As it happens, Archbishop Wilson did decide to step down late yesterday. But only after dragging his feet and being supported in doing so by Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Why was it left to Archbishop Wilson - with his understandable lack of objectivity - to decide on such a crucial matter? How could it be that a convicted criminal was allowed to continue to serve as Archbishop of Adelaide and to make that decision himself? Surely Archbishop Coleridge should have  publicly exhorted him to stand down immediately after his conviction, if not before (Coleridge does not have the authority to remove him).

Moreover I interpreted Archbishop Coleridge’s short statement after Wilson’s conviction as a slapping down of the criminal justice system and, by implication, the victims whom it had vindicated. Why was it relevant for Coleridge to mention in such a brief document that Archbishop Wilson ‘maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process’? To me, Archbishop Coleridge appeared to be publicly questioning his colleague’s criminal conviction.

As a recent President of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Wilson was a leading light in the Bishops’ attempts to implement programs and policies to protect children at risk. He seems to be of good character. However the court has decided that he has a criminal past that he must atone for.

If I ask myself whether I want him to go to jail, I have to say yes. If he doesn’t, there will be little or no justice for those whom he failed all those years ago. They are individuals who remind me of my clergy sex abuse victim friend who did not receive justice and took his own life.

Where I'm also at home

Yesterday I returned to Paris after spending a few days visiting my sister across the English Channel in Kent. 

I’m here for less than two days before leaving Sydney in the morning. I’ll be there until I travel to Paris again, for two months from September.

Before I departed England, my sister asked me what it felt like to be going home. I thought she meant Sydney, but she insisted she was referring to my ‘home’ in Paris.

I’m in a space I ‘own’ but I’m only ever here on a tourist visa and I hardly speak the language. So I haven’t thought of it as ‘home’.

But she got me thinking about what we mean when we say we are at home.

Today I had a few thoughts while reading back over an invitation I received recently from an Australian friend who is organising a six day spiritual but non-religious personal awareness retreat in rural France in August.

The intention is for the participants to find their ‘authentic selves’. 

To some people, a phrase like that is just another piece of new age jargon. The retreat is not meant for them. 

My friend and the retreat leader have in mind people who have might have undergone life changes such as leaving a long-term relationship. Or perhaps jumping into the void from an all consuming work life. 

We might once have felt ‘at home’ in our former circumstances. But change – either chosen or forced – challenges us to recalibrate where we feel at home. 

To do this, most of us need to gain perspective by breaking out of whatever shell that could be preventing us from reaching a deeper level of awareness.

I’m not going to the retreat, but I have been working at living life at this deeper level. 

My minimalist lifestyle here in Paris enables me to be at home here because a deeper awareness takes the place of the material ‘stuff’ in my house in Sydney. Living part-time in my tiny room on the other side of the world completes my sense of self.

I’m not ready to burn the books on my Sydney bookshelf that are a monument to my past. But they represent almost all stages of my life and act as a powerful symbol that stares down at me every day and can hold me back if I let it. 

There is in fact much that I cherish about my past. But I need time out from the books and the other things in my house – to be in my other home – in order to be who I am at this stage of my life. 

The size of my Paris room is intentionally too small for me to accumulate things. Instead I’m relying on my inner resources for that all important sense of self. 


Link: I am that I am Retreat

My visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia

I’m a few days into my week in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Georgian republic. With its picturesque architecture and natural surrounds, as well as a lively cultural and gastronomic buzz, it seems set to become a tourist hotspot some time in the near future.

Tbilisi architecture

One of Georgia’s claims to fame is the invention of wine some 6000 years ago. A wine geek friend told me that it is a wine geek’s paradise and to look out for the orange coloured white wine made using the traditional Georgian method that retains the skins and stems of the grapes.

I found it in a wine and cheese shop in a back street, where the owner told me he makes his own and is particularly ‘proud’ of the cheeses he also makes.

I’ve noticed the Georgians seem very proud of their culture and history. But it’s obvious that this is not to be admired in every instance.

Yesterday I took a one hour train trip to the town of Gori, which is the birthplace of the feared and discredited Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Georgian orange wine

Locals are still proud of him, although they did remove his statue from the main square in 2010. However two years later, the municipal assembly voted against changing the one-sided pro-Stalin perspective of the Joseph Stalin Museum.

A banner with these words had been placed at the entrance: ‘This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimise the bloodiest regime in history’. The banner was subsequently removed.

Gori – and its main street that is still named ‘Stalin Street’ – has a noticeably ‘Soviet’ feel to it when compared with Tbilisi. 

The woman at Gori railway station sternly refused to sell me a ticket to return to Tbilisi because I couldn’t produce my passport. At Tbilisi station, the woman selling tickets had asked for my passport but bent the rule, obviously imbued with a western-style customer service imperative. 

In Tbilisi the pro-west hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution, President Mikheil Saakashvili, showed his enthusiasm for Western institutions and politicians by renaming the road from the airport George W. Bush Avenue.

Zurab Tsereteli Brothers

But Saakashvili is gone and the works in the Zurab Tsereteli retrospective currently on display in the  Museum of Modern Art could be seen as a cultural bridge between Russia and the west.

The 84 year old painter, sculptor and architect – who controversially supported Putin on Ukraine – is Georgia’s best known living artist. 

In some ways his ‘monumental’ style reminded me of some of the art I'd seen earlier in the day at the Stalin Museum. It has the bright colours and distorted perspective of Russian folk art in combination with influences of the avant-garde of 20th century Europe.

With the current lack of any political bridge between Russia and the West, at least there’s some consolation in seeing a cultural bridge in Tsereteli’s art, and also in the general ambience of Tbilisi.

When the church and aristocracy lost their influence

Yesterday afternoon I ventured into the Marais for one of my typically aimless walks. I like to explore back streets in particular, and never know what I will see or discover. In one of those streets I came across a mid-size museum I’d never heard of, the Cognacq-Jay.

It is among the 14 Paris museums run by the public institution known as Paris Musées. It’s billed as a museum of ‘18th century taste’, a reference to style and outlook rather than food. 

I’d never before been to a museum of ‘taste’, and most of the visitors are probably not so interested in that descriptor because it’s clear that the Cognacq-Jay’s contents are entirely paintings, sculpture and ornaments. 

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But it intrigued me, as I’m most interested in social history. I like viewing art works  not as ends in themselves but as reflections of the lives of people and sub-cultures of a given time or place. 

What distinguishes particular peoples is what they regard as being in fashion at their moment in time. That is their common taste and it is reflected in the style of their collective lives and possessions. 

When entering the museum, I thought to myself that I’m not so interested in the 18th century, as it was the 20th century that most shaped my own life and culture. But I was wrong.

I learned that the 18th century was known for the diminishing influence of the church and aristocracy as all powerful entities that dominated people’s lives. There was the rise of a middle class consisting of tradesmen, administrators and artists who were claiming a voice and power for themselves. 

These changes were reflected in the art of the portrait, which established the role of the individual’s own personality. Spontaneity and openness were dominant in the paintings and sculptures of the 18th century.

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These people were fascinated by ways of life in other parts of Europe and beyond. Some embarked on the Grand Tour, while others were taken up with exoticism or the idea of ‘elsewhere’ (e.g. India and China) and its magic and curiosities, as well as the discovery of new species.

According to notes accompanying the displays in one room, ‘The import of new exotic products such as spices, drinks and craft objects, brought about changes in consumer habits that blended European culture with imported items’.

As I see it, the church and aristocracy were not being replaced, but instead invited to play a part in the lives of the people alongside the new influences from outside. If they chose not to play ball, they would be ignored by the mainstream. 

Churches and the aristocracy can still be dismissive of taste and values other than their own, and also the blending of various spiritual and cultural influences that has become the norm. It was therefore clear to me the continuing relevance of the explosion of taste in the 18th century. 

Living austerity in Paris

Over the past few days I’ve had contact with a friend with whom I’d been out of contact for most of the past 15 years. She has been intrigued by a few life decisions I’ve made in recent years, including my decision to retire at the age of 55 and to buy a tiny five square metre room in Paris to live here for four months of the year.

I’d depicted the room as austere, and indicated that’s the way I like it ‘for the moment’.  I think she interpreted what I’d said to mean that I might have plans for a major renovation at some stage, or to use the room as a stepping stone towards the eventual purchase of something larger with more luxury.

Natural Light

But the truth is that I sense I’ve reached a stage of life where I’m able to live comfortably ‘in the moment’. I like to think that I – and many of us – am already living the dream, and my particular gift is the realisation that I’m doing just that. 

I’ve learned that there’s no point in envying others. It’s likely they envy us as well. I have one friend whom I envy because he speaks perfect French. He envies me because my circumstances allowed early retirement.

I wouldn’t absolutely rule out a grander Paris living space at some time in the future, but it’s simply not on my mind.  That’s the point of living for the moment. It’s related to a mindfulness and the savouring of what is available to our senses now. 

My previous two month stay followed my taking possession of the room last October. It was taken up with emptying the room of somebody else’s ‘stuff’ and furnishing it with what I felt I needed such as a microwave, a slow cooker and a Japanese futon bed-chair.

However those things are ephemeral compared to what I’ve come to cherish as the room’s best asset other than its central geographical location. That is its position at the top and back of the building. This brightens the room with a generous amount of natural light and ensures I get a good night’s sleep despite being in the vicinity of many bars and restaurants. My Fitbit watch data tells me I’ve been sleeping eight hours on average, compared with six and a half in Sydney. 

I also feel good about being able to climb to the sixth floor many times a day without breathing more heavily than normal. It’s a constant reminder that working on my physical fitness has a purpose. 

Obviously there will be come a time in my life when this will no longer be the case. That will be another moment. But for now I am consumed by this one.